Cookies and why you should care about them
Before we begin, this is not about the delicious kind of cookies, this is an article about internet cookies. So if you opened this article hoping to learn about some tasty cookie recipe or to learn about the health issues (or benefits) related to cookies, you might be disappointed.
But still, give it a shot. I’m 100% sure this kind of cookie is also something which is affecting you and has benefits and issues with it as well. And you should be careful when dealing with these, especially in today’s world.
What is a cookie?
It’s Monday morning. You want to catch up on some news, and your website of choice is Financial Times.
So you open up www.ft.com and you see the following popup:
So you just click on the big green button “Accept & continue” and go about reading what’s happening around the world.
You must have seen similar popups in a lot of websites you visit and usually people just accept and continue without giving it too much thought, unless you’re very particular about these things, then you might go to “Manage cookies” and change stuff around there. But what is a cookie?
Simply speaking, a cookie is a very small text file containing a small piece of data which is used to identify a particular device (a computer, a smartphone etc.). To learn more about how it works and how it affects your activities online, read on.
Why is it needed?
In the early days of the internet, when you visited a website, there wasn’t actually a way for the sites to “remember” visitors and that was inconvenient at times; for instance, you went to an shopping website, added something to your cart and closed your browser and when you came back to that site, you see that your shopping cart is empty and now you have to find that item again and add it to your cart and make sure you buy it this time.
So websites/browsers at that time were not “persistent” and that was quite inconvenient in so many instances like this and therefore there was a need to make these websites “remember” a visitor. And thus, the cookie came into being.
How does it work?
A simplified overview of how a cookie works is as follows:
A user goes to a website and then the server for that website (where the information is saved) returns the requested info to the user and along with that, it also sends a “cookie” which is, in simple terms, a very small file. It is usually stored on the user’s device (the laptop in this case) and whenever the user visits the website again, the server is able to identify the user based on the cookie which it had stored previously.
What are the potential issues with this?
This is an example of a first-party cookie. First party because the cookie is set by the website you’re visiting and it uses it for purposes like identifying the user.
But we’re in Web 2.0 right now (and moving really fast towards Web 3.0) and cookies are used for waaaaay too many purposes other than just identification.
For example: You go to a blog of your choice, which is a really good one and the surprising thing is, it’s free!
But you know the saying “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” and that rings true here too. Well, it’s free in terms of monetary purposes, but you’re paying for it with your privacy in some cases.
So on this blog, you see something like the following:
As you can see, there are a lot of ads and you might think “Well, I don’t really care about ads because they can’t affect me and I’m never influenced to buy anything from ads ”. And while that might be true, there’s another factor at play here.
As it’s mentioned earlier, a website can place cookies on your device, similarly, these advertisers can also place cookies on your device. These are known as third-party cookies. These 3rd party cookies are used to identify your activities around the web and understand what are your interests and these advertisers and cookies “talk” to each other and basically form a sort of “profile” about your online activities and then use that to serve content on the web to you.
This is not just used to serve ads based on your interests, but can also be used for some not-so-noble purposes. Anything like selling data of your online activities, profiling it for the government, showing targeted content to you, hiding targeted content from you etc.
Third-party cookies are therefore, also rightly known as trackers. There are websites using upto 200 trackers on a single page, so yeah, you should be worried about who is tracking you. Read this article which tells you about an experiment studying which sites have the most trackers.
Okay, so what do I do?
Well, the first thing you should do is, whenever you see a cookie popup on a website, don’t just accept the default settings. Go to “Manage cookies” or “Manage settings” or something like that and then make sure you just select the “necessary cookies” or “first party cookies only”. I’ve shown an example of Financial Times:
If you absolutely want to block all kind of cookies, you can do so in the settings for the browser that you use. Read this article to know the details.
You can also block all trackers using browser extensions like Ghostery. You can also use a VPN fudge your online activities, but that’s another topic in itself (tracking by VPNs).
As always, let me know your feedback and questions in the comments :)